By Ryan Divish
Havre Daily News Sports Editor
BUTTE - It wasn't the ball. It wasn't the rims. It wasn't the background. It just wasn't Lights night.
The Montana State University-Northern men's basketball team picked the wrong time to have an off night offensively - thanks partially to a stifling Westminster College zone defense - and fell to the Griffins 82-62 in semifinal action at the Frontier Conference basketball tournament Friday night at the Butte Civic Center.
After four weeks of sinking jumpers and swishing three-pointers, Northern's shots were doing anything but from the opening tip. Three-pointers clanged hard off the tight Civic Center rims. Layups and short shots came up short. Basically nothing was going in.
But it wasn't just Northern. Westminster couldn't buy buckets either early on.
Neither team could get on the scoreboard in the first two minutes of the game, with Westminster finally reaching double figures at the 12:05 mark on a layup by Nick Booth.
"The first half was what you'd expect from two teams going into a new arena," said Westminster head coach Tommy Connor. "It was kind of ugly. The shooting was sporadic and there was missed layups."
It got so bad that the referees even changed the game ball. Apparently, the game ball that the teams were using was overinflated.
"They said it had too much air in it," Connor said. "I said, 'Is that why we keep missing so many baskets?' and he said, 'Yeah.'"
The change seemed to help the Griffins as Adam Hiatt sank a long three-pointer to take a 15-9 lead with 10:18 remaining in the first half.
Northern was finally able to get into double figures on a pair of Larry Morinia free throws 15 seconds later. But Hiatt answered with back-to-back three-pointers as the Griffins pushed the lead to nine.
As Westminster started to find its range from the outside, Northern still struggled. The Lights were able to keep things close in the first half from the most unlikely of places - the free-throw line.
Northern shot 9-17 from the foul line and got a timely three-pointer from Landen Grant and a pair of driving baskets from Dustin Sawejka and Morinia to trail 31-28 at halftime.
For the Lights to be trailing by just three points at the half was quite an accomplishment, considering that they shot a frosty 33 percent from the field while Westminster shot 52 percent and 63 percent from three-point range.
After the slow start, Westminster got very comfortable in the Civic Center.
"Boy, did they ever get hot," said Lights head coach Shawn Huse. "They shot the ball well. It seemed like it was the home gym the way they were shooting from three-point range."
If it seemed like home in the first half, the Civic Center got even cozier in the second half for the Griffins.
Westminster reeled off a 17-1 run to open the second half, powered by 11 points from Hiatt, including a pair of three-pointers, to take a 48-29 lead. Landen Grant finally got Northern off of 29 points with a steal and a score inside.
But his basket was quickly answered by a three-point play and a jumpshot from freshman Jared Roberts.
Northern desperately tried to rally, but Westminster seemed to have an answer for every basket. A three-point play from Lamar Morinia was greeted with another three-pointer from Hiatt. A Travis Moran three-pointer was responded to with a score inside from Booth and a jumpshot from Shane Humpherys.
When it wasn't Hiatt hitting shots, it was his supporting cast stepping up and making plays.
"We had three freshmen - Nick Booth (12 points), Nate Sanchez (5 points, 7 rebounds) and Jared Roberts (13 points) - out there driving and finishing," Connor said. "When the other guys are scoring, I think we're pretty tough to beat."
Indeed, the other guys were scoring and Hiatt was doing plenty of scoring on his own. After not scoring his first point until halfway through the first half, he could hardly be stopped the rest of the way. Hiatt finished with a game-high 27 points, including 6-8 shooting from three-point range.
"Everything we do offensively is through him," Connor said of his star senior. "They did a good job taking some of the stuff he does well early in the game. But he got some shots to fall and he is very capable of creating shots on his own."
Said Huse: "Hiatt is just a great, great player. I thought we did a good job early, but their other guys were hitting early to keep them in the game and then he got going. You're never going to completely shut him down."
While Hiatt was able to find his shooting stroke, Northern's offensive leaders, Larry and Lamar Morinia, had their first tough shooting night in recent memory. With Westminster's trapping zone defense, the Morinias had limited room to maneuver and get to the basket and were forced to settle for long jumpshots with defenders all over them.
"Defensively, we really turned it up a notch," Connor said. "We did a good job on the Morinias mostly through our zone. You can't guard them in man-to-man. I think we do as good a job as anyone in the conference. Our zone doubles up on penetration and we just wanted to make sure we had an extra defender there any time they tried to drive."
The Morinias still combined to score 27 points - Larry with 16 and Lamar with 12 - but they were just 7-23 from the field and 2-10 from three-point range.
"It did look like chaos out there at times," Huse said. "We did put things in this week to use against the zone and we tried to run them. It just seemed like when we did get an open shot, they didn't go down."
Besides the Morinias, Dustin Sawejka had a solid game off the bench with 11 points.
Northern finishes the season with a 21-13 record and despite the tough loss, Huse was still upbeat.
"We weren't picked to be here at the beginning of the season," Huse said. "Just by getting here, I think we overachieved. The kids worked so hard all season, it's tough to see it come to an end."
The loss is even harder for Huse as he says goodbye to three members of his first recruiting class. With the departure of the Morinias, Huse loses close to 70 percent of his offensive production. And with Moran, he loses leadership, hustle, defense and a never-say-die attitude.
"Those three guys played with so much heart and hustle," Huse said. "They're great leaders and positive players that really taught our players about team chemistry and how much gets done if you play with passion and desire. We've won a lot of games on heart alone. They're not only great players, but great people."